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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 36, New Delhi, August 27, 2016

Azaadi — Freedom from the Empire

Sunday 28 August 2016, by Devaki Jain


Remembrance of Things Past

August 15 reinvokes reflections of India’s freedom struggle and its aftermath which are customarily carried by newspapers and journals. Apart from the mention of independence and pictures of Gandhiji with a spinning wheel or his traditional walking stick what the freedom struggle meant to the generation that was actually on the battle-ground is often bypassed.

 I married into a freedom fighter’s family. My father-in-law, Phool Chand Jain, was one of those dyed-in-the-wool freedom fighters. He had participated in the movements or I should say the various initiatives undertaken to throw the Empire off our backs—starting with making bombs along with the fiery group and then using them, and moving on to the non violent league—over-whelmed by Gandhi’s special charisma and language. He had been a significant figure in the struggle, in that he was not only the President of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee before independence but he was also the editor of the Congress newspaper called Arjun.

He was disappointed as were many others who were like him—people who did not speak English, wore khadi and were utterly serious in their dedication to Gandhi’s idiom and ethic. Having been all that and having been in jail several times including in the most punishing part of the jail in the Red Fort, he found the nonchalance of the post-freedom choices and styles of the Congress most disappointing.

People like him, I think, understood and were completely overwhelmed by the methodology used by Gandhi to deliver India from the empire! When they followed Gandhi they also accepted the entire Gandhian package of wearing khadi, of leading a life of simplicity and being constantly engaged in the public space, Gandhi’s second freedom, improving the lives of those around in the neighbourhood. The dedication to society was another package; in other words, the individual interest or ambition was overpowered by the desire to participate and move forward with the community.

 Post-independence my father-in-law, and I presume many like him, were disparagingly called dhotiwallahs. They were deeply disappointed to notice the behaviour and ‘culture’ of the post-freedom leaders of the government. I give one incident which he repeated to us and which I myself witnessed. This was when he came back from a reception on Republic Day at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. He said a separate time and place was kept for them and some shawls were given by the Rashtrapati. He must have meant to those who were wearing dhotis and who could not speak English.

 These men and women were excluded on the ground, perhaps, of not being able to speak to the dignitaries and of course our dear civil servants or ‘modern’ people, in English

 Once he experienced that humiliation and disappointment with post-independent India he realised that the new rulers had left Gandhi behind, as demonstrated by their treatment of those people who imitated Gandhi in his lifetime and embarrassed them in the new India.

My father-in-law, Phool Chand Jain, would be sitting during mornings and nights in a room which he called the ‘baithak’ pouring over his own notes and handwritten postcards recording the details of birth and death of every Indian freedom fighter who was shot or hanged; in other words, killed by the British. Then he would tie them up with a string. I am told that soon after independence he would bicycle to the National Archives from Old Delhi and diligently note, on used envelopes, the data relating to the people who had been hanged or shot during the freedom struggle.

He had identified more than 100,000 of these men and women, and, as he explained to me, they were barbers, dhobies, apart from small-time shopkeepers. Imprisoned and then shot or hanged to death.

The legacy which we received from Babuji and his son L.C. Jain was a commitment to simplicity in both—lifestyles, relationships and the work ethic. In the work programme what was strongly emphasised in the first two decades was the effort for reconstructing the lives of those that had been left behind by earlier regimes, including the refugees.

Local development, building local institutions such as cooperatives, strengthening and moving skills into remunerative occupations, federating from local to higher levels of management (Dr Kurien and Amul represent that ethic), pan-chayats—these were all the triggers that seemed to engage us. Lifestyle, which is now often mocked at, was a crucial element in all this engagement. Lifestyle meant restructuring consumption and consuming products which would provide incomes to widespread communities of workers.

It was not difficult to practice these principles. To ensure that the hand driven textile industry would survive, simple solutions of sharing of market were designed. One which I found most moving was to designate sarees, those that had borders were to be woven by the handloom industry and those without borders in the machine-driven industry. Government purchases, whether of school uniforms or medical gloves, had to be made through cooperatives, some-times cooperatives run by war widows and so on.

So it was not the licence/permit raj only, it was a raj that attempted to heal the wounds of colonisation as well as war. Its main goal was livelihood, economic freedom both for the nation as well as the individual.

Interestingly, a report in the newspaper to day, published by the World Bank, argues that livelihood, economic strength is the most crucial need or service that enables the poor out of poverty—social inputs are second to this primary need. Azaadi was also liberation from economic oppression and exclusion. We have surrendered that possibility.

Devaki Jain is an economist, and was married to Lakshmi Jain, a former member of the Planning Commission and Gandhian intellectual. She can be contacted at e-mail: devakijain@gmail.com

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