Book Review | Chronicling ‘Our Freedoms’ in a Broken World

With the idea of freedom becoming a distant memory with each passing day, it is difficult to describe the tenor of disquieting times like this. The recently-published anthology Our Freedoms does just that while amplifying voices that hope to make India’s constitutional morality unfailingly stronger.

Edited by columnist Nilanjana S. Roy, the book – an amalgam of history, compassion, defiance and hope – explores a multitude of themes encompassing the idea of freedom, something India gained from the British colonialists but failed to ensure to its citizens in the postcolonial period. The book is about the politics of religion, caste and gender; the language of dissent; the limits of free expression; and challenges to constitutional democracy and secularism.

In a robust essay titled ‘Freedom and the Idea of Freedom’, historian Romila Thapar contextualises the idea of India through the lens of freedom and argues how the idea of India was always under threat. Besides discussing the tenets of nationalism, both secular and religious, the essay is a deep inquiry into the historical formation of the Indian State pivoted around culture and territory.

The fascinating work timely deliberates on questions such as – what is freedom? Who decides our freedom? Are there any inherent and ironic limitations to it? Is freedom a mere elite recognition, an act of intellectual and moral superiority? How has the Indian state curtailed freedom over the years? And most importantly, how can individuals re-claim their rights by re-orienting themselves in becoming citizens rather than the public?

From the state of ‘involuntary exile’, in heart-breaking words, bolstered by wounds and ruins, British-American writer and journalist Aatish Taseer writes,

“For me, the loss was literal – I could not go back to India – but also abstract; the loss of an idea, that ‘exalted’ idea of a secular India.”

He shares his relationship with India and juxtaposes it with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India and elaborates on the stripping off his Overseas Citizen of India status after he wrote on ‘India’s Divider in Chief.’

‘Our Freedoms’
Edited by Nilajana S. Roy
Juggernaut Books (2021)

As the country witnessed a crackdown on students, journalists, dissenters from Aligarh to Delhi, amidst the nationwide protests against the draconian Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, the book condemns the forms of state violence and upholds humanity. Rana Ayyub, in her hopeful essay ‘Why I choose hope,’ reminds how pandemic has further enabled the sabotaging of human rights, and empathetically writes,

“Each day is an assault on our mental health as our news channels conduct a medieval witch hunt against women they hate. But fight we must.”

The book captures how the rot on attacking ideas of freedom remains much deeper than the present ruling regime and showcases the extended version in the subversion of an anti-democratic state over the years.

Absorbing, insightful essays, written by historian Anchal Malhotra and author Salil Tripathi, navigate the power of resistance. One from the time when freedom fighter Usha Mehta became the voice of the Congress radio in opposing the British-controlled All India Radio and another from Emergency, the ‘darkest period’ of Indian democracy. Tripathi remembers the navnirman andolan (reconstruction movement) in Gujarat that influenced Jayaprakash Narayan to spearhead a student movement underway in Bihar, and paved way for Narendra Modi in the latter years.

Roy has sharply managed to assemble contributions from a myriad set of voices that brilliantly touches upon the different realities of freedom experienced by individuals in terms of essays, short stories, poems, and criticisms.

In her soaring personal essay, Yashica Dutt explores the concept from the lens of caste and gender and provokingly writes, “In the complex matrix of caste and patriarchy that permeates Indian society, Dalit women lie at the absolute bottom. They are often punished simply for existing.”

Traversing the contradictions inherent in the idea of freedom, musician T.M. Krishna imagines a world where the form of freedom, rather than the idea itself, will bring a multiplicity of voices.

Gautam Bhatia, a constitutional law scholar, touches the soul of the Indian constitution, undermined or largely unrealised after the formation of the Republic, and re-instils,

“If freedom is not practised in society – in our structures and our institutions – the Constitution’s promises will remain promises only.”

In a meditative essay, academician Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes the history of freedom, from philosophies to politics, and examines the structural and hierarchical inequalities in claiming who is free or illuminated upon. He stimulatingly writes,

“The two most precious freedoms we have is the power to imagine and the power to define ourselves. The seat of freedom is not a reason or truth, it is the imagination. Freedom is the imagination. Through the imagination we expand the boundaries of the Self, we overcome any quotidian limitations, and we imagine other worlds and other lives.”

Books like Our Freedoms serve as a repository of our collective and individual consciences; of and empathetic ruminations, captured as a totem of the time writing words was a privilege.

Kalrav Joshi is a recent graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication and is fervently interested in politics, culture, development and art.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty