Independence is a curious thing.
In its essence it should be easy enough to define; the state of not being subordinated to another entity, whether that be a bullying parent or a foreign occupier. In practice, it’s not by any means as simple as that.
In his books, the late British environmentalist and writer Gerald Durrell made a point: the life of a “free” wild animal is actually anything but; it’s restricted by such things as the availability of food, hiding places from predators, the imperative to find a mate, and furthermore by such factors as territoriality, including a rival’s. Often, as Durrell pointed out, a zoo enclosure would actually offer a captive animal more room than it would get in the wild.
This, by the way, is just to make a point; I’m not defending or opposing the existence of zoos in this article.
Where an individual human is concerned, of course, the same things apply. Even if one goes off to the forest to be a hermit in a cave, one had better be careful to ascertain that there’s enough access to food and water to survive, and the cave isn’t so cold and damp that the first winter will either kill one with pneumonia or drive one back to civilisation. And, apart from that, one had better be ready to defend oneself against the local bears or wolves, hyenas or leopards, as well as parasites of all descriptions.
Doesn’t look much like “independence”, does it?
What if one sticks to civilisation? Unless one is a multibillionaire, and therefore able to buy one’s own rules, one’s imprisoned – that’s not too strong a word – by the need to make a living, pay taxes, maintain the essentials of an endurable lifestyle, and the rest of it, even if one has no family or other obligations.
For a nation, perhaps – surely – it could be different? It could be – if the nation existed five or six hundred years ago, had control of a large enough territory with enough arable land and natural resources to be able to feed its population, and was isolated enough from other nations not to require constant warfare to defend itself. That sort of situation, obviously, isn’t viable today, unless a country wants to go the North Korea route and seal itself off – as far as possible – from the rest of the world.
So, in a very real term, independence is not possible even at the level of a nation. But within those limits, can one have some form of independence?
Yes, it is possible.
But for it to be possible, some things are necessary.
And today, 15th August, Independence Day for India, we have none of those things.
To be honest, there never was a true independent India. It merely transited from a colony ruled by the British to a country ruled by “brown sahibs” so closely modelled on the British (Nehru, India’s first prime minister, even called himself the “last Englishman to rule India”) that British laws, such as the ban on homosexuality, continue to be valid in India decades after they were junked in Britain itself. The slavish emulation of Britain was so complete that a political system that had, and has, no relevance to Indian conditions – the British “Westminster” “democracy” - was imposed, lock, stock and barrel, and continues though it has manifestly failed to perform as expected.
In other words, the first requirement for independence – a leadership with no ties to the past, able to think along new lines – was absent.
Then, as I have pointed out earlier, India never really had to pay for its independence with blood in an armed struggle. Not that there wasn’t an armed struggle – in fact, it continued in fits and starts all the way from 1857 to 1945. But it never, at any time, received any kind of political support from the putative “leaders” of the “independence movement”, and it was never active outside the north of the country and parts of the east. There was the so-called “nonviolent” struggle, but it, too, was a fake, designed, as Slavoj Zizek says, to serve as a safety valve for pent-up passions and not as a serious challenge to British authority. In fact, the alleged leader of India’s freedom struggle, Mohandas Gandhi, can best be described as an enabler of British colonial rule, who repeatedly withdrew agitations against the occupiers just when they appeared to be giving results, and who promoted a small coterie of “brown sahibs” like Nehru at the expense of other leaders, thus ensuring a continuity of British rule by other hands, as I said.
This failure to pay for independence in blood has had profound consequences. Not having paid in blood, Indians don’t have an emotional attachment to the independence that they got when the British left. And so, it became easy to tolerate the steady erosion of that independence, and the creeping recolonisation of the country by the same foreign interests which had enslaved it earlier; I’ll mention a bit more about that in a moment.
This, then, is another thing that India lacked – an emotional connection to independence, as a thing worth treasuring and fighting to preserve.
The third thing India lacked was historical memory. In fact, there’s no such thing as objective history in India these days. What we have is a bowdlerised version, carefully sanitised to suit the tastes of the government of the moment. And woe betide anyone who – like the American historian Wendy Doniger – who happened to “hurt people’s sentiments” by their writings. Obviously, this mythological history has nothing to do with facts. Therefore people who don’t know what actually happened will ignore clear historical analogies and warnings.
A fourth thing strongly lacking in India was, and is, a national identity. Now, prior to the British colonisation, there had been no “India.” There had been literally hundreds of kingdoms and principalities of various sizes scattered throughout the subcontinent, all of which were based on the feudal system of society. In fact, and this is crucial to understanding just how India ever became a colony, it must be first accepted that India was feudal to the core. It’s only because it was totally feudal, with the population owing allegiance to the patron of the moment, that a miserable few thousand British civil servants and soldiers controlled a subcontinent of three hundred million for a hundred and fifty years. This feudalism made it easy for the British to rule. All they had to do was subvert or replace the feudal chief, and the population was kept easily under control.
Today, too, feudalism is alive and well, though the source of patronage has – in India though not so much in Pakistan – changed from the local landlord to the caste or tribal politician. In order to promote the interests of the caste or tribe, the interests of the nation are irrelevant. And since the structure of the tribe or caste is feudal, its interests are synonymous with those at the top of the financial pyramid. At this very moment, for instance, in this state, fascist tribal gangs are agitating in favour of primitive coal mines which have ruined the environment and were banned by the central government – even though the only ones benefiting would be the owners of the coal mines, nobody else.
Bereft of a national identity – apart from the crass flag-waving at cricket matches – it’s easy for practitioners of divide-and-rule politics to set sectarian and tribal identities against each other, and profit from the infighting that follows.
A very important fifth feature that Indians at least no longer have is a social conscience. I’ve often talked about the Great Indian Muddle Class, which morphed from the middle class back in the early 1990s. The Great Indian Muddle Class, instead of having any sympathy for the working classes from which it sprang, hates and despises them. Its only aspiration is to the sort of lifestyle it sees in Hollywood films, and its only interest is greed. If it gets its fancy gadgets, its shiny cars and its three hundred TV channels, that’s all it really cares about.
I’ve often thought that if the US had invaded India rather than Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s, it would have had a cakewalk once the initial fighting was over. Except for scattered groups of Maoists and other malcontents, not a single hand would have been raised in resistance against the occupation.
Today being independence day, I got inundated by those meaningless email forwards familiar to most Indians, about India’s alleged accomplishments in days gone by. Never mind the fact that most of these have long since been debunked. The fact is that a modern nation shouldn’t have to look at things (allegedly) accomplished by ancestors a thousand years ago to feel proud of itself.
If, that is, it has anything to be proud of today. But does it?
Today, after almost seventy years of freedom, this country still has one of the lowest human development indices in the world. The economist Amartya Sen observed several years ago that there were now two Indias, a “first world” one of the ultra-rich, and one which is far below sub-Saharan Africa in development. And there’s not even the slightest feeling of national shame about this. The Muddle Class person, in fact, has a smug feeling when looking at the poor, and gloats over how far he has come. The very flags his children wave on Independence Day are more often than not purchased from other kids selling them on the streets. And that is supposed to be independence.
There’s this old saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” The British colonists first came as traders, and set up “factories” (trading posts) which they then fortified to protect their trading interests. As these “trading interests” grew, they increasingly began interfering in local politics, set up their own mercenary armies (three of them, based around Calcutta, Bombay and Madras), and fought wars to expand their markets and influence. To finance this they borrowed from the moneylenders of Calcutta, who therefore immediately had a financial stake in the continued military and economic success of the new white overlords. Right to the end of British rule, the financial top layer of the country was emphatically pro-British.
Today, it’s “common wisdom” that the future of the country lies with foreign-owned multinationals, which have to be enticed to invest their funds by making things easy for them by any and all means possible. The laws of the land – environmental and labour, to start with – have to be diluted or done away with altogether to suit them. The “investment climate” has to be made “favourable” by any and all means possible, including bending the nation’s foreign policy towards the home countries of these multinational corporations. And once they’re here, of course, they have to be enticed to remain. If they withdrew their investment, it would be a disaster, and other future investors might be deterred as well.
Is this independence?
And the crowning irony? Those who support this policy of surrender to foreign capital are by no means ashamed; they agitate to be rewarded with awards and adulation. They are proud. They claim to be patriots.
And the rest of us, the miserable environmentalists, political leftists, labour rights activists and anyone else with a conscience? We’re called traitors in the pay of China, or similar charming epithets.
Pardon me if I am a bit doubtful about this kind of independence.
And, of course, Happy In Dependence Day to everyone.