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75 years & still struggling

Freedom does not mean violation of human rights, stifling voices of dissent & ignoring under-development

When an octogenarian activist from a tribal state dies waiting for justice, when citizens are incarcerated for questioning the State and mocking the mindless system, when human rights are murdered in fake encounters, when a pandemic-hit country loses faith in its government, when the economy nosedives rendering thousands jobless, then what does one say?
“Happy Independence Day!”
The world’s largest democracy is celebrating its 75th Independence Day with the usual fervour. The leader of the State, in his speech delivered from the podium at Red Fort, talked about start-ups and development, and about a concerted effort in building a self-sufficient country. Nonetheless, the pain points continue to torment the country, and at times, overshadow the true essence of democracy.
The country’s independence is celebrated in all states, including Meghalaya, where the pain points have been pressing harder than before. From human rights violation, crime against women, unemployment, poor healthcare to border disturbances, the state has been reeling from several issues, some of which are decades old.
The recent ‘encounter’ of surrendered militant Cherishstarfield Thangkhiew is an example of blatant violation of human rights and yet the government remains nonchalant in starting an independent inquiry as is being popularly demanded.
The same government also refused to pay heed to activists’ call for providing income support to the members of the lowest stratum of the society during the pandemic. It took days of protest for the government to relent to the demand.
Meghalaya can be the microcosm of what is happening nationwide. In terms of rights violation. the national examples are aplenty. Take the case of Fr Stan Swamy, who died without getting justice for the State’s tyranny, or that of several activists who are in jail for protecting the freedom of those whose cries for help reverberate and die in forests.
The country that is rejoicing in the 75th year of freedom from foreign shackles is now entangled in its own mesh of corruption, bigotry and intolerance.
“India has prided herself for being the largest democracy in the world. In spite of that, the gross violation of citizen’s rights would say otherwise. Though we may have been freed from the control of our colonial rulers, the challenges we face now is another form of internal colonialism where people from certain parts of the country have control over the other parts. Exploitation exists simultaneously in places with rich resources. Caste politics still exists which plays a crucial role and elections are rigged. our entire system is run by corrupted rulers whose sole purpose is the maximise their own personal interests,” says city-based artiste Clyde Herschel Thangkhiew.
Democracy, after all, “consists of choosing your dictators, after they’ve told what you think it is you want to hear”, satirist Alan Coren had said.

‘Ersatz freedom’

When we talk about freedom in this country, we only mean freedom from colonialism. But what about the constitutional freedoms? A 22-year-old Muslim student in a metropolitan city who was actively involved in the anti-NRC and CAA movement says she is annoyed every time she hears about freedom.
“What sort of freedom are we talking about? The government makes a law to sieve out Muslims. Political goons and moral police continue with their attacks on Muslims in every state. Muslim students of Aligarh University were targeted for expressing their views and constitutionally protesting. It is an ersatz freedom. After 75 years of independence, we are struggling to maintain secularism and basic human rights,” says the exasperated youth.
A similar sentiment echoes among the youth in Meghalaya. “The most important and sensitive subject that has resulted in creating so much divide in the country is religion. Though we consider our country to be secular, communal violence and clashes occur as each day passes. Politicians use religion as trump card to win elections,” says Clyde.
High rate of unemployment, a wobbly economy, distortion in the social fabric and a complete lack of political will to make a perceivable change are some of the major issues which are bothering the youth today. Random chats with citizens between 20 and 30 years of age revealed the growing frustration.
“The pandemic has busted the state’s failure on healthcare front and I do not see any effort by authorities to take lessons from last year’s experience and improve the situation. Instead, I read about illegal coal mining thriving even amid the pandemic, mine accidents, job loss and stories of penury,” says a 24-year-old professional.
Only a handful in the country has access to quality healthcare and “India does not have a universal healthcare system to cater the needs of the people… and private hospitals are too expensive”, Clyde points out.

Where is the camaraderie

Uma Purkayasthya, an educationist and a senior citizen, remembers the days when Shillong would be a peaceful city and there would be camaraderie among all communities. The loosening social fabric in the state upsets her.
The situation is equally miserable in other parts of the country. Polarisation in the name of religion and petty vote-bank politics are overshadowing real issues and constricting critical minds. Criticisms are now synonymous with sedition and the State is brazenly putting restrictions on every form of freedom.
The camaraderie across borders has also lessened over the years and historical enmities have remained unresolved.
Sashi Teibor Laloo, a research scholar, says the colonial hangover continues and “the British have left us in a mess”.
“The border problems are their making, and the situation is the same around the world wherever there was colonialism… Coming to the North East, I feel the residents of border areas are inadequately represented. They do not have development and basic amenities… even for phone network, residents on the Indo-Bangla border have to depend on the neighbouring country,” says the young scholar.
Not only the border areas but other rural pockets in the state are also lagging behind in development. Road connectivity, healthcare infrastructure and internet access are among the pain points troubling citizens in remote areas.
“As the nation celebrates Independence Day, Meghalaya is yet to progress in comparison to other states. There is lack of infrastructure as there is no rail connectivity. Air connectivity is inadequate. There are no industries as the demand to implement ILP acts as a deterrent. In the absence of opportunities, besides plight of capital, brain-drain is a reality. Many from the North East are flocking to Bengaluru and other cities as there are opportunities there. We do not have good hospitals and medical colleges are not yet ready. We need to change our mindset,” says Ashok Mukherjee, retired consultant.

Illiteracy still a reality

Illiteracy and school dropouts continue to plague the education system of the country. Despite the Right to Education Act, many poor children are deprived of their basic right. “While education has always been the sole focus of most government’s policies, a huge number of children still do not have the means to attend schools. Though the mid-day meal scheme was introduced in public schools to encourage children to attend schools, poverty has led to significant number of dropouts,” says Clyde.
The government-run schools in Meghalaya as well as in other parts of the country are in a shambles. Purkayasthya, who was the principal of Government Girls’ School in Shillong, says public schools these days get little or no attention of the state. “There was a time when our school produced rank holders. Now, it is really sad,” she says.

Freedom at gunpoint

To say ‘Happy Independence Day’ would be an insult to citizens at a time when they are living in fear of the State. True, the country has seen an end to foreign rule, but a more dangerous internal power is stifling freedom. The media, considered the fourth pillar of democracy, is being intimidated time and again by imprisoning journalists and lodging sedition cases against them. Talking about the pain points is akin to anti-nationalism. One feels asphyxiated and terrified when an invisible gun is pointing at them. If this is what freedom looks like after 75 years, then the country needs to seriously introspect and rectify the anomalies in democracy.

~ Team Sunday Monitor

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