“Freedom only emerges in an environment that nurtures justice, equality, liberty and fraternity,” writes TM Krishna, as part of a new collection of essays titled “Our Freedoms.”

A collage image of TM Krishna and the cover page of the new book Our Freedoms
news Book excerpt Tuesday, January 26, 2021 - 15:00

This essay by TM Krishna has been excerpted from a collection of essays titled Our Freedoms, published by Juggernaut Books. It has been republished with permission from the publisher.

We love freedom: ours. We fear freedom: that of others. We do not know whether to unconditionally embrace it or keep it on a leash like a pet dog. There are moments when expressing ourselves seems paramount to our very existence and living life as we deem it uncompromisable. Yet there are times when we fear freedom for the ‘other’. And we wonder: will her or his freedom upset my apple cart? Then we proclaim in Indian English, ‘Too much freedom is not good.’ So while we lament about the restrictions that are overtly and surreptitiously imposed by the state and the lack of freedom in today’s India, we need to step back and reflect on our own negotiations with freedom because at the foundation of the excesses that we are witnessing is a collective failure.

Most of what we treasure as intrinsic to our being is understood emotionally. Ideas such as freedom are difficult to articulate in their entirety. Every time we speak of them, we only express one aspect, condition or interpretation. Yet everyone, including those who have been suppressed and pushed to the edge of life, knows the ecstasy in it. It has been felt at some point of time, in a song or just a shared laugh. But it is this profundity that makes us want to own, manipulate and tailor its nature to serve only a few. To this end, we construct a society that allows this to happen with ease, unquestioningly. The socially powerful define freedom in ways that allow them to twist it in any direction they wish. The rest just have to accept their position in this constructed pyramid and obey. At times, in order to keep the rest in line, largesse and charity are offered. Don’t be fooled, these are acts of control. The receiver knows this and plays by the rules so that the powerful feel ennobled. Freedom is, indeed, an ugly game. Therefore, I am uncomfortable speaking of it in abstract, poetic terms. And I wonder whether that utopia is just a fabricated fraud. Maybe even the experience of freedom that we all share is a simulation. 

But what do I truly know about freedom? I am a privileged man, born into a brahmin family, who has lived a life of economic comfort. I have got everything I sought. Hardships have been few and far between. They were irritants, not debilitating injuries. We rarely discussed freedom at home or school because it was always there. The only time freedom became scarce was when my mother put a curfew on my playtime. 

Am I even fit to  write about freedom?

We use the term caste blind when referring to people of caste privilege with no realization of caste. Caste was never an impediment to normal life. But maybe we should add that being blind to the complex traumas associated with caste, gender, race or colour actually means you are free. This sounds wrong, doesn’t it? Let us think about it. Every layer of privilege makes our lives that much more removed from dusty reality. We build our own clusters with restricted membership. And, in this microcosmic world, we live with boundless freedom. It is, of course, another matter that even those clusters were constructed and are served by those who have to fight for their seasonal showers of freedom. We could inverse this and say freedom is compounded by the erasure of every layer of stigma. As long as an individual is tainted by markers of discrimination, freedom is unattainable. And that taint, I must remember, is my work. Therefore, when I pontificate about freedom being this feeling, emotion, I am being disingenuous because I have never really felt free in all its glory, I have only always controlled it. When a Safai Karmachari is relieved of the torture of needing to sink himself into that deep dark hole of human excreta, he feels freedom – not me.

The soul of our Constitution lies in its understanding that freedom cannot be independently realized. That freedom only emerges in an environment that nurtures justice, equality, liberty and fraternity. And by enshrining these values in the Preamble, the founders challenged every social mechanism that, in various degrees, tramples upon freedom. The Preamble never uses the word, but informs us that freedom will be archived in a society that enables the values that it extols. Freedom is a fundamental right that comes to fruition if we ensure a fair, just and equal society. But human beings are conniving creatures and we have applied restrictions on citizens’ freedoms through amendments and by introducing acts such as the National Security Act (1980), Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (1967),  Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act (1978) and Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958). We have successfully reverse-engineered an assault on the guiding principles of our Constitution. The manner in which these laws are enforced breaks every promise made to ourselves: ‘We, the people of India’. The members of the Constituent Assembly too faltered by letting laws such as the colonial era Sedition Law (1860) remain. Quite astonishing, considering that M.K. Gandhi was jailed under that very provision.

But the Constitution is only words in a book. It comes to life when people act upon its advice, instructions and directions. The problem seems to come from the disconnect between the hopes and yearnings for our people as etched in our Constitution and the reality that surrounded us then and envelops us today. The Constitution is a letter of hope, an aspirational address to the people of India. But did the people of India believe in what it said? Were they even made aware of it? 

We are a feudal country, entrenched in patriarchy and casteism, but the Constitution hopes that by following its spirit we will move beyond these demonic practices. But this does not happen unless we hold people’s hand and take them along this path. Regrettably, we created an education system that doesn’t care about ethics, equality, liberty, freedom, empathy, secularism or love. We have not taught our children about the grandeur of our Constitution. The independence struggle has been reduced to a battle between good (Indians) and evil (British), much like our epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, have been. Our children do not learn about the sociological battles between Ambedkar and Gandhi, that this republic was given shape amid debate and discussions and by paying attention to diverse voices. There has been no nuance, intellectual rigour or emotional depth in the way we have understood our own coming of existence. Schools and colleges have functioned as employment agencies, not places of enlightenment. How students go on with their lives, share space, respect, learn, listen and grow have been immaterial to us. And we have done this unfailingly for over seven decades. We have created generations of citizens who believe the Constitution is a book of laws. Not just the common person, but also people who have held important judicial posts, occupied high constitutional chairs and have been repeatedly elected as our representatives. It is in such a country that we are seeking an understanding of freedom.

Our police force is a fine example of this insensitivity. They have been groomed to only worry about law and order. People are viewed as impediments to keeping law and order under control. A senior police officer once told me, and I paraphrase, ‘Why do you want to have music, dance and theatre in public spaces?’ He was least concerned about our rights as citizens, or the fact that he was there to make sure that every citizen could celebrate life, unafraid.

‘But we need laws; you cannot have everyone doing whatever they want.’  Don’t we hear this said often? Using this as a pretence, we spank our children and don’t really mind if the teacher uses the wooden ruler. Right from our childhood, violence is programmed into our lives, and if it is delivered from a position of authority, the benefit of doubt is always given to the person wielding the stick.

As a musician, I hear a similar refrain on form and freedom. They are seen as being in conflict, constantly tugging and pulling at each other. The other view is that their togetherness is proof of the need to place limits on freedom. Form is viewed as that ‘rulebook’ which keeps freedom in check.

But is that really form?

Form does not fall down from the sky. It is a product of cultures, time, people, contexts and nature. It comes into being from the exercise of freedom. The freedom to observe, reflect and act allows for ideas to be nuanced, turned, questioned, adapted and reimagined, bringing together diverse voices. Form is, therefore, not a homogenizing process but a way of giving aesthetic unity to multiplicity. This aesthetic coming together does not smother interpretations, rather it allows for space and interaction. The marvel is in how variations remain together intertwined. A single raga has so many interpretations, one note added here, another removed, one skipped and another doubled. The same phrase handled by different musicians has so many colours. This is form, a liberating possibility. The purpose of form is to ensure that every voice is heard. But when this is maligned and form is strangulated, only the loudest is heard.

It is with the freedom that thrives within form that the musician elopes. She then roams with the unsung melodies, the unstruck rhythms and unheard movements of that freedom-in-form. These then remind her that whatever she is experiencing, creating, offering can only live in harmony. For puritans who are unfree, this is unthinkable and blasphemous. They scream from the rooftops about the music being destroyed, corrupted, impurities being allowed in and demand vigilance. Form and freedom remain silent, smiling and watching all this go by. And as they do so, music breathes. This is my dream for India.

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