‘Freedom week musings.’ By Nandini Mazumder
73 years ago, India and Pakistan was created, overthrowing two centuries of British colonial rule. Yet one wonders if the struggle for independence and the freedom that was won at a great cost is understood in all its essence today – is it still cherished?
Colonialism and imperialism 2.0: World over many countries gained or continue to gain independence from colonization and yet they remain chained in neo-liberal capitalism. Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) that are often located in the global North outsource production to low income and poor countries in the global South because cheap labour is available in excess and there are fewer or less strict rules and regulations one needs to follow for labour rights. Corrupt governments also often act as the agents of the MNCs , allowing them to function without accountability and at great human and ecological costs.
For e.g., in 1984 the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal (India) leaked and caused massive disasters and deaths (thousands died instantly, thousands more died over the next few days, millions were injured and birth defects became common). The effects of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy is felt even today – the compensation given to affected families continues to be debated and the justice system allowed most Union Carbide officials to walk away with little or no punishment. Click here to see a photo essay of the tragedy.
Or in 2013 when a building called Rana Plaza in Dhaka-Bangladesh collapsed killing over 1000s of garment workers associated with global brands such as Mango and Benetton among others. It is also important to note that many of the garment factory workers who are grossly underpaid and work in precarious conditions happen to be women and children. Of course the brands continue to flourish and have not been affected by the deaths of the workers. Click here to read more about the Rana Plaza tragedy.
Colonies within colonies: The nature of power is that it is not static but dynamic, and the powerless of a bygone era can become the tyrannical rulers of the present times. A phenomenon that can be seen in countries that were former colonies where the most marginalized voices continue to ask for justice and demand their human rights even as unjust laws from the colonial eras are used to gag or silence these voices. The larger, majoritarian community is constantly told to fear the “other” and in countries that were once based on ideals of secularism and diversity, multiple identities are under attack and one language, diet, and identity is being propagated.
Living and loving freely: Nation states were formed arbitrarily in this part of the world when Sir Cyril Radcliffe, on the behest of the British Government, drew a line on the map of India and divided the country into India and Pakistan (which included East Pakistan now known as Bangladesh). Sir Radcliffe was so ignorant about this part of the world that it was only when an assistant pointed out that he had left Pakistan without a major city, that he re-drew the line and ‘gave’ them Lahore.
This line drawn so casually continues to affect the lives of even today the borders affect those who live near them, historically shared lives across the border communities continue to be divided and controlled on grounds of religion, caste-class, language, diet, and so on. Gender and sexuality too remain contested grounds and given how patriarchal our societies are, gender identities and sexualities that are not heteronormative (or cis gendered, heterosexual, adhering to caste lines, etc.) remain marginalized and oppressed. Colonial eras laws against homosexuality, obscenity, public nuisance that was once devised to tame the uncivilized colonial subjects, are continued to be used even today. The deeply entrenched castes has also led to the practice of honour killings and oppressed castes, queer people, women and girls have died due to the prevalence of honour killings. (For e.g., Kandil Baloch who was killed by her own family members for not adhering to norms and being the ‘good’ Pakistani girl.)
Nuancing the conversation on human rights: Since independence from the colonial rule of the British many countries in South Asia have made great progress to ensure human rights for their citizens yet much still remains to be done. Despite the non- violent movement the eventual bloody legacy of our independence has left communities divided and the politics of communal rage simmering constantly. Therefore, given the crisis of citizenship in South Asia where millions are stateless, dispossessed and/or internally or externally displaced with no way to discern who is a resident/citizen and who is a foreigner. South Asia should step up its commitment towards human rights and fulfil its responsibilities towards all people (even those that are deemed as lesser humans such as the aliens and stateless) and expand human rights to all.
Struggles within the struggles:The struggle for sexual and reproductive rights also fall into the trap of hegemony – which sexual practices are acceptable to advocate for, whose sexuality is acceptable or tolerable and how same sex marriages or more heteronormativity has become accepted and celebrated even in LGBTQ movements. Sexual rights movements have also made invisible certain marginalized communities, such as sex workers and trans people. The violence discourse has increased criminalization. There continues to be a need to interrogate who leads the movements – in India we see the hegemony of upper and dominant caste groups while globally the US and the western cultures project themselves as the ‘rescuers’ of the ‘primitive’ and ‘violent’ cultures of the global south.
Of the people, by the people and for the people: Finally, I will conclude my musings on freedom by stating how important it is to protect the hard-earned freedom that was won at a great cost and also to continuously expand it. Looking back on the last few months when COVID19 hit the whole world and we reeled under the pandemic, the glaring gaps in our current neo-liberal market driven state structures became even more evident. Many countries in Asia and around the world adopted authoritarian measures and imposed strict lockdowns. Some countries decided to blame certain communities – the minority “others” as the cause for the spread of the disease. Public health measures and science was ignored, while leaders opted for more populist and jingoist approaches. Governments came up with list of essential services and items. However, the grim reality remained such that critical services such as long-term contraception and safe abortions remained unattainable for many. It almost seemed that the governments gave up their duties towards their citizens, and instead adopted a neo-Darwinist approach where the vulnerable are left to die. Neo- liberalism has already converted citizens into either labour or consumers and we were only as good as our productivity level. One bank advertisement even spells it out: “pandemics will come and go but the market is here to stay”.
However the movements against unjust social systems and structures continued, including street action as well as online advocacy engagements and campaigns and reminded us that this is also a time for resistance. That our health care and our human rights are essential, and there cannot be a hierarchy of needs arbitrarily decided by those in power. That true freedom is the freedom to speak truth to power.