Revisiting the Idea of Swaraj on India’s 74th Independence Day
We are celebrating our 74th independence day in the midst of a raging pandemic devastating our health, economic and human security. We are also painfully mindful that the idea of Swaraj which guided India’s freedom fighters to fight and lay down their lives for our freedom from colonial rule has been endangered by a political regime which openly negates it and creates conditions for the devaluation and destruction of all the institutions of the Republic.
Tilak suffered sedition in pursuit of Idea of Swaraj
On 1st August 2020, the centenary of the death anniversary of LokManya Tilak was solemnly observed. He electrified the nation with his iconic slogan, "Swaraj is my birth right and I shall have it". Hailed as the father of Indian unrest and charged with sedition, he was supported by celebrated leaders such as Lenin and Maxmuller who demanded his release.
The British regime, while persecuting him on charges of sedition, cited before the court of law that he wrote the titles of three books on explosives on a piece of paper, and that this action in itself constituted sufficient grounds for arresting him for making bombs under the Explosives Act and charging him with sedition. All Tilak’s pleas in the court that he wrote those titles for the purpose of obtaining them and doing research to write a piece on the Explosive Act in his newspaper, Kesari, fell on deaf ears and he was imprisoned for six years on the grounds of sedition. His ringing words, "I maintain that I am innocent. There are higher powers that rule the destiny of things and it may be the will of Providence that the cause which I represent is to prosper more by my suffering than by my remaining free'' assume critical significance for twenty first century India when several prominent citizens and public figures are facing sedition and other serious charges on one ground or the other and languishing in prison.
Gandhi Envisioned Swaraj as Capacity to Resist Authority Abusing Power
So what is the meaning of Swaraj in such trying and troubling times? After the unfortunate passing away of Tilak it was Mahatma Gandhi who expounded the meaning of Swaraj and explored its varied dimensions which need to be revisited and resurrected to understand its deeper significance for our time. It is tragic that questioning the regime is dubbed as an anti-national activity. Crushing and criminalisation of dissent has become the new normal for the powers that be. It is in this context that the idea of Swaraj as the ability to resist authority for transgressing all limits imposed on it is of critical relevance. It was Mahatma Gandhi who, five years after the death of Tilak, wrote that "Real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be obtained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority."
The pertinent question is - are people being allowed for using their capability to resist authority when it abuses power in New India? The answer is a resounding no. Resistance to the abuse of power by those in authority is met with the invocation of repressive laws and punitive measures. When the criticism of the judiciary for its inability to defend democracy and the democratic rights of people is dubbed as criminal contempt by none other than the Supreme Court, "the acquisition of capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused" is robbed of its essence and meaning.
Therefore, on the occasion of our 74th independence day celebrations we need to invoke the majesty of Swaraj embodied in the words of Mahatma Gandhi that, "Real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused". His other assertion that "Swaraj is to be obtained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority" is more important and is of abiding significance. Gandhiji's advocacy that Swaraj could be obtained by the education of people for the purpose of awakening their capacity to regulate and control authority closely corresponds to Dr. B R Ambedkar's appeal for the cultivation of constitutional morality, one aspect of which is to respect the Constitution and its institutions, and the other which is to interrogate those who abuse the Constitution and those institutions by misusing the powers vested with them.
Gandhi invoked Hind Swaraj and not Swaraj based on Majority Community
In the gathering crises caused by the calculated promotion of majoritarianism by the powers that be, the idea of Swaraj to resist the invocation of power and authority in the name of the religion of the majority of the people assumes deeper significance. Mahatma Gandhi had cautioned about it and wrote on 16th April 1931, "It has been said that Indian Swaraj will be the rule of the majority community, i. e. the Hindus. There could not be a greater mistake than that. If it were to be true, I for one would refuse to call it Swaraj and would fight it with all the strength at my command, for to me Hind Swaraj is the rule of all people, is the rule of justice."
Again he wrote on 27th May 1939, "Let there be no mistake about my conception of Swaraj. It is complete independence of alien control and complete economic independence. So at one end you have political independence, at the other the economic. It has two other ends. One of them is moral and social, the corresponding end is Dharma, i.e. religion in the highest sense of the term. It includes Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc., but is superior to them all…. Let us call this the square of Swaraj, which will be out of shape if any of its angles is untrue."
What we require is the idea of Hind Swaraj which is inclusive, and which invests people with the capacity to resist authority when it is abused. When there is an attack on the Constitution and the institutions of the Republic by those in power, it is time for people to be educated about resisting authority and regulating and controlling it. In doing so we would pay a real tribute to the freedom fighters who fought for freedom and laid down their lives for the idea of Swaraj as it is embodied in the Constitution, and the constitutional scheme of governance. It is indeed pertinent that we need to suffer in the defence of these ideals in tune with the vision of Mahatma Gandhi who had said that there is dignity in suffering for a higher cause.