The independence that we celebrate today was won by the Indian people through a prolonged and hard struggle of epic dimensions, a larger-than-life battle in which ordinary men and women performed heroic roles. It was the culmination of a revolutionary movement which forced the rulers of an empire on which the ‘sun never set’ to surrender power to their ‘subjects’ whom they had exploited for over two centuries. It heralded the beginning of the end of colonialism, a process still called decolonization by Western academia, to give it the appearance of a voluntary withdrawal. India was the first colony to throw off the imperial yoke, and its example inspired other countries in Asia and Africa, and by the early 1960s, most countries had become independent. The Indian national movement had supported the struggle of all colonized people, and after Independence the new Indian state under Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership continued to do so. The non-aligned movement was part of this effort to give the newly independent countries an opportunity to keep out of the Cold War and the two power blocs and assert their independent voice without having to parrot the views of a hegemon.
Nature of Indian nationalism
This raises the question about the nature and character of Indian nationalism, which did not seek to promote Indian interests at the expense of others, did not seek to dominate smaller powers, instead supported and encouraged them to be independent. This was because Indian nationalism, as articulated in our freedom struggle, was a progressive, revolutionary, humane, compassionate, pro-people, anti-colonial nationalism. It was not the aggressive jingoistic nationalism of the fascist Mussolini or Nazi Hitler which was used in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s to crush democracy, and commit genocide on bona fide citizens by declaring them anti-national. Neither was it the homogenizing nationalism based on language (and often religion), as in 19th century Europe, examples being French-speaking Catholic France and German-speaking Protestant Germany. The nationalist vision that inspired millions of Indians was of an independent, multi-lingual, multi-religious, secular, democratic, civil libertarian and egalitarian republic.
The hyper-nationalism witnessed in India in recent times is not the nationalism of our freedom struggle. It misuses nationalism, which has a positive connotation in the minds and hearts of the Indian people, to polarize, to divide, and to suppress individual freedoms. How can this be the genuine article? Our nationalism is meant to unite, to harmonize, to guarantee freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association. I particularly want to draw attention to the issue of civil liberties, as this is one of the strongest elements in the legacy of the freedom struggle which is under grave threat today. Witness the reckless use of Section 124-A to charge students with sedition, with vigilantes attacking even journalists inside law courts, with books being withdrawn and pulped, with Ministers attempting to terrorize dissenting intellectuals by labelling them as ‘intellectual terrorists’, with gau rakshaks physically attacking those who they think are flouting their diktats, especially if they belong to the Dalit or minority communities.
These attacks on freedom of expression, of movement, on freedom to eat and earn your livelihood, bring home to us the urgent necessity of resisting these attacks, and that can only be done by defending civil liberties, by defending this legacy as an integral part of our nationalism, and by declaring these attacks as anti-national. To do so, we need to arm ourselves with greater knowledge about how the battle for civil liberties was linked to our national struggle. I offer some examples below.
In fact, the leaders of the freedom struggle believed so strongly in the absolute right to freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, that they considered the struggle for these civil liberties to be an essential part of the national movement. Almost half a century before anti-imperialist nationalist ideas begun to emerge, Raja Rammohan Roy, often called the Father of Modern India, as early as 1824 protested against a regulation restricting the freedom of the press. In a memorandum to the Supreme Court, he argued for “the unrestricted liberty of publication” to ensure that every individual could bring his views to the notice of the rulers.
Power of the press
Much before the formation of the Indian National Congress or other nationalist organizations, nationalist ideas were expressed and spread through the medium of the press, and that too mostly the Indian language or vernacular press. Most of these were papers started by middle class people of nationalist leanings who invested their life’s savings and often their family jewelry in this enterprise. Incensed by the highly critical tone adopted by the press against the administration for their inhuman attitude towards the victims of the famine of 1876-77, the Viceroy, Lord Lytton, decided to strike hard. A draconian law aimed at the Indian language newspapers was planned in secrecy and passed in a single sitting of the Imperial Legislative Council. The infamous Vernacular Press Act 1878, provided for the confiscation of the printing press, paper, and other materials of a newspaper if the government thought that it was publishing seditious material.
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Mridula Mukherjee is a former Professor of Modern Indian History at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She was also Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.