Freedom in India – THEN and NOW

Freedom in India - THEN and NOW

Do youth today associate ‘freedom’ with the country’s Independence or with their personal freedom?

You value something more when you have some memory of the event. Youth today might not relate to the 1947 generation’s experience of Independence. Even their parents were perhaps not part of that experience. It is something they hear people talk about or read in textbooks. 

So the meaning of freedom for today’s youth comes from their experience of it — their freedom or lack of it comes from their own life. These definitions are context-sensitive. Take, for instance, childhood. To an adult, a child is so free, with no responsibilities. But the child’s experience of freedom is restricted by what adults want them to do or not do. Adults see childhood as a period of freedom, whereas the child may not see it that way. The child’s dominant reality is not freedom; so too for an adolescent who feels he is not free. 

A young adult’s idea of freedom is to go out on his own, have money, have friends, and spend time with them. However, what freedom means to you, also depends on where you come from — small town or big city — what kind of family you were born into or raised in, your economic status and educational background and so on. For instance, typically a girl, in large parts of India, might not enjoy as much freedom as a boy does because of many societal reasons, including that of safety concerns. 

So what does freedom mean to young people today?

It means to be able to act as per their desire. Or convert desire into action without any interference from authority. So college is freedom and school is not; outside is freedom, home is not; eating out is freedom, eating at home is not. Earlier, people were most upset about not being able to choose what to study, what kind of job to take, who to marry, whether or not to have children — these were big issues of freedom. Today, issues of freedom have become smaller — at least, among the elite or the economically better-off sections (others may not have the freedom because of economic, social or other reasons). 

Would you then say freedom means greater choice?

Freedom today is the right to exercise choice. I get to choose. To me, my desire should be at the heart of my actions. That’s what freedom is today — about fulfilling smaller desires, because larger desires are easier to take care of today (for the privileged). You find increasingly, the age of exercising choice is getting lower. Increasingly, for youth, freedom is about every day choices. 

And the freedom for more personal space?

‘Personal space’ was a foreign concept here. Privacy was unheard of. The idea of people having their own rooms! In a joint family, all rooms were for everybody, except perhaps when couples retired for the night. You could nap in any room and no one would mind. Of course, it is different now.

With more freedom, we are more independent in many ways, but are we really more restricted — as our personal space grows and public space shrinks?

Acute awareness of ‘me’ produces a notion of freedom that is restrictive rather than inclusive — you move away from the world rather than expand your engagement with it. Aided by technology, the notion of freedom has become so personal that it becomes synonymous with desire. 

A social community of any kind is founded on sacrifice — we all agree to place limits on our personal freedom in exchange for a rule of both social order and law. Social custom involves foregoing actions that might be personally gratifying, but which the community implicitly deems improper. With time, the ability of social norms to circumscribe personal behaviour is declining. So increasingly, because your personal freedom is more important, you tend to become an island — whatever was governed earlier by social norms is now governed by an imperfectly administered law.

If your son was caught in a corruption case, your entire family, maybe even community, would feel a sense of shame, and that was a deterrent for a lot of people. Today, if you are corrupt, it means you have more money; maybe you even get more standing in society in material terms. So there are fewer societal checks and balances; individuals must find their own compass. This is easier said than done, and we see many instances where people find themselves unable to find their own path.

Would you say that an individual’s freedom to move toward higher consciousness is also somewhat restricted today?

Consciousness and its evolution are independent of material wellbeing. Spiritual experience is not circumscribed by class. You will find evolved persons in the most mundane of situations — philosophers with expanded consciousness, in any section of society. There is a change, and that is in the greater commercialisation of religion, wherein asking for one’s desires to be fulfilled has become identified with a form of piety. Asking for something material is fine, as long as it is from God.

For the poor, could spiritual evolution be a survival mechanism?

The importance of material wellbeing as a central part of life has not always been a given. You did not find such vast disparities — most people I knew had roughly similar incomes, and even in most good jobs there was no dramatic difference in incomes, unlike now. So money was not something that defined your life. 

The vast majority did not get obsessive about material goods. Your sense of meaning in life did not come from transactional realities. You were balancing your books in another world, in another dimension, and not just in this world! You did not think in terms of quarter and semester, but more long-term; you lived a more connected life in a larger sense. Your responsibility was to future generations and not just to yourself and your immediate family.

~ Narayani Ganesh