Independence, like a long work in progress

August 20, 2022 | 05:50 IST

Independence, like a long work in progress

Amita Kanekar

Chief Minister Pramod Sawant’s statement during Independence Day celebrations that the Portuguese plundered Goa for 400 years surely counts as a personal goal, with many Goans retorting that the actual plunder of Goa has only started only lately, especially under the aegis of Sawant. own government. But it is needless to ask where Sawant got his ideas, or even to inform him that, while historians have criticized the Portuguese Empire and its rule over Goa for many things, “pillage”, or economic exploitation, is not one of them. . Sawant’s history lessons won’t end so easily. He was not even embarrassed when his grand plan – and budgetary outlay – to rebuild the temples destroyed by the Portuguese, turned out to have no data on those temples to back it up. Who cares about facts? The goal is simply to constantly raise annoying non-issues so that the real issues are ignored. Disparaging colonial rule is the easiest option, with Independence Days and Liberation Days offering a golden chance to indulge in it to the fullest.

But, really, shouldn’t we start looking at independence in a more realistic way, rather than the simplistic idea that the end of colonial rule equals independence? What exactly is independence? People working for human rights have repeatedly pointed out how meaningless that word is for many Indians, given that decent jobs, education, health care, justice and even dignity remain distant dreams for so many people in this country. How independent can a country boast when a child is beaten to death by his own teacher in his own school, ostensibly for the ‘crime’ of drinking water – and is not even mentioned in speeches from the Independence Day the next day? How independent can women feel when gang rapists and convicted mass murderers – whose crimes against women and children can hardly be described – walk free on Independence Day and are greeted with garlands and praise (as “Sanskari Brahmins”) by the local MP and other notables close to the BJP?

The validity of such questions cannot be denied. But it also cannot be denied that, while India’s promises of independence to its citizens have yet to be fully delivered, even the partial independence that has been achieved so far has not actually been born on ” the stroke of midnight”. To claim that Indians and Goans were slaves under colonial rule, and gloriously freed from their chains in 1947 and 1961 respectively, only serves to glorify Indian and Goan politicians. But that’s not really true. Gaining independence was a long and uneven process, which began long before these dates.

Yes, it is true that substantial human development occurred after the end of colonial rule, such as the progress of mass education in Goa. But there have been developments before too, many of them. In fact, mass education began under colonial rule, and many, including today’s celebrated freedom fighters, first heard of liberty, equality and fraternity in colonial-era schools.

Sawant himself boasts of Goa’s uniform civil code and its superiority over the civil codes of the rest of India; it is legislation from the Portuguese era. And if independence means good public infrastructure, as many pointed out after its ‘400-year-old plunder’ declaration, one can compare the centuries-old Portuguese bridge between Panjim and Ribandar – surely Portugal’s greatest marvel. engineering from Goa, and still doing its job today – with BJP’s brand new Atal Setu, which is still closed for repairs.

And who can deny the gain in human rights sought and even achieved through religious conversion under colonial rule? These conversions are a crime in the eyes of many Indian politicians and even part of the public today. But historians have pointed out that there were also many voluntary conversions, especially of so-called lower castes and women. These may not have ended caste or patriarchy in Goa, but it surely disrupted old hierarchies, while opening up new avenues of advancement for those involved.

Even the concept of elections, of ordinary people represented in power by people of their choice – the very basis of democracy – is an idea that entered Goa and India under colonial rule. In Goa, electoral politics expanded in the 19th century, so that by the end of the century, the law stipulated that the head of every family, including women, and regardless of caste, class or religion, had the right to vote and stand for election.

If there were people before who opposed the end of colonial rule, there are also Indians today who oppose independence from other Indians. It was recently reported that a draft constitution for a future Hindu Rashtra had stipulated that Muslims and Christians would not be allowed to vote; he was not condemned by those who sang hymns to the greatness of independence. Meanwhile, a man in Goa was arrested by the police because there was a religious flag flying higher than the national flag in his home; this “insult to national honor” deserved immediate arrest. But demanding an end to Indian suffrage is apparently not an insult to national honor.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the suffrage originally introduced by the colonial powers, which was expanded to become universal adult suffrage after the end of colonial rule, is now being abolished during the “amrut mahotsav” of the independence ? There is no doubt that independence remains a work in progress, which can sometimes even mean one step forward and two steps back.

(Amita Kanekar is an architectural historian and novelist)

Maria D. Ervin