Where the Mind is Free

A few days back I came across a small snippet in a vernacular daily here in Kolkata, which I thought best expresses my view of freedom. The section was aptly titled “Je Din Aami Shadhin” (The Day I Was Free) and the snippet came under the heading “Shaheb Au Great Dane” (the White Man and the Great Dane) by Satya Bikash Bhattacharya of Alipur. I am hereby producing a literal translation of the story.

“It was in 1947 and freedom was just nine days old. About five-six of us friends purchased third class train tickets but did not get a place to sit in the compartment. We decided to travel in first class, in order to commemorate our freedom. Back then, very few Indians could even think of traveling in first class. We decided that if the ticket checker boarded the coach, we would tell him our case, and if required would pay the rest of the ticket charge, which I think was nine rupees then, as the price for our freedom.

So with great joy we made ourselves comfortable in the first class coach. At Icchapur station, a white man entered and asked if he could board the coach with his dog (most probably a Great Dane). Now if this had happened just two weeks back, then the man would have asked us to get down or called in the ticket checker. He must have realized from our attire and manners that we were not economically fit enough to travel in first class. The white man stepped aboard with his dog, but on finding no place to sit, stood by the door. Instead of being pleased, all of us grew very uncomfortable. Ten minutes later, on getting down at Barackpur station and consuming tea, biscuits, cakes, paan and cigarettes in our fashion, we all felt freer.”

The above story is an individual’s experience of the days following the independence of our country. Yet somehow it seems to me to go beyond mere political dimensions to present freedom as an intrinsically human phenomenon. Being free is so much a state of the mind that in the above story the protagonist and his friends could not reconcile to the fact that a white man was standing, while they were sitting in a coach of which they did not have the proper tickets. The real freedom lay in being in their own surrounding; doing things they liked best without the least doubt about the moral veracity of their actions. For them, the sense of freedom and independence that they felt when in company of each other they were enjoying the delicacies was far more than the discomfort of sitting in a place where you are not lawfully allowed to and then denying a lawful occupant (even though he may be a ‘white man’). Thus the sense of freedom at once is attached to the notion of society and here I come to the main question of this article. Even after six decades of independence, are we really free?

I know this question will at once bring forth a murmur of voices, each taking different sides. Philosophies may argue that one is never free and others may say that freedom depends on our outlook. But what I wish to point out is simply that freedom is an individual’s prerogative and is independent of society. By saying this, I do not intend to disagree with the many sociologists who have spoken about the individual and its relation with society. I simply mean to put it that freedom is about an individual’s right to his/her own choices and opinions and that right is independent of any external factors. Now we come to the more difficult issue, are we then really free? To me it seems that there is a very thin line dividing freedom and influence. To me most of us are driven like dumb cattle. We never think before forming our own opinions. It is as if our entire opinions are formed by what others want us to believe. For example, the entire Aarushi case was portrayed by the media in such a manner that most of us believed what it showed. Another recent example is the Niketa Mehta abortion plea. Popular media quickly lapped up first the Mehta’s version of abortion due to congenital heart ailments and then the court’s version of “no real danger to the baby”. And then when it was found out that the hospital report that was sent to the court was “misprinted”, then the media changed its stance again. Why do we have to depend on others for our own opinions?

And therein lays the problem with India’s independence. Even after sixty years, we are still dependant on the white man to tell us what to do. We have failed to build a truly independent national consciousness. Whatever effort has been made towards this direction has always been one-sided and politically motivated. This national consciousness lies in an individual’s mind and is not just limited to the political entity called India. Individuals make a nation. And thus nations live and flourish on the strength of its individuals. Freedom to form our own opinion, independent of external factors yet complete access to information without tampering with it is freedom for me.

I consider myself partially independent and as such think that the true freedom as desired by Tagore “Where the mind is free” is almost a utopian idea. Yet it is in the pursuit of this ‘true freedom’ that makes a civilization greater than the rest and pushes it to go forward. Our country sadly lacks that kind of free thought. To be local yet global, national yet universal in our thoughts is what makes a nation truly independent. This is what the protagonist of the above story felt, when even after getting on the coach their true instincts of fairness and honesty cages them in a mirage of their own creations. They felt truly free when they came out and amidst their own surroundings experienced the political freedom of their country for the first time.

Anupam Dhar

Excerpt taken from Ananda Bazar Patrika, dated: August 10 2008

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