Is Freedom really ‘free’?

And it’s that time of the year again.

Saffron, white and green are the flavors of the month. Every traffic signal is crowded by hawkers selling ‘Independence-Day’ themed merchandise – badges, flags, wristbands and what not. Every Bollywood movie channel this month plays films made to bring out the patriot in me – biopics on our freedom fighters, a movie about a gang of carefree friends turning into national heroes taking on the government, erstwhile period dramas, and so on. And if that were not enough,  my neighborhood bakery’s come out with an entire Independence Day menu – cupcakes, sandwiches, cookies, draped in colors of the Indian flag. And in this month’s spirit of nationalism, all of these wares are selling like hot cakes.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for celebration, and commemoration of our Independence Day. For completion of 70 years of the world’s largest democracy is no mean feat.  It’s an occasion that definitely demands celebration. Celebration of the fact that today, we’re a young, dynamic, energetic, vibrant, fast-growing economy. Yes, we’ve got several bottlenecks and loopholes that need resolution, but we’ve reached a stage where the world takes us seriously. We’re no longer the outsourced work community, but rather the innovators, the value creators, and entrepreneurs, contributing a great deal to the global ecosystem at large.

And all of this has been possible, because we’re a free nation.

But then, are we, truly?

While we’ve become adept at exercising, occasionally even demanding our freedom, somewhere along the way, we may have also forgotten that with freedom, comes power. And adding to that, if I may quote my childhood superhero Spiderman, With great power, comes great responsibility. Which means that freedom isn’t just a right, its also a responsibility. It isn’t just a perk, its also a duty. You can’t have one without the other, and somewhere unfortunately, we might have forgotten that along the way.

And as a futuristic Indian, that concerns me.

An instance in point, freedom of expression of speech. Blatantly, this means that as a citizen of the country, you have the right to speak your mind. But that does give us the freedom to, well literally, say whatever the hell we want? Tweet away to our hearts content, till there’s no opinion that we’ve kept to ourselves. Write open letters where we openly shame, ridicule, judge, criticize, malign and scorn each other. Make national news out of everything, right from the latest celebrity weight gain to the recent neighborhood brawl. Free media, particularly in case of a democracy, in supposed to be boon, a privilege. Unfortunately, on many an occasion, it also becomes a two-faced sword. Take the numerous instances in the past few months, where our media has gone from being the mouthpiece of the nation, to a circus. Or even, a battlefield for revenging personal vendetta. Freedom of speech may be the right, but responsible speech is the give-back duty that’s clearly missing, particularly as far as a majority of our journalists, politicians, even celebrities are concerned.

Another kind of freedom, that’s grossly being misused is the freedom to practice secularism. Our Constitution screams that we’re a secular state. Which clearly means that as a nation, we believe in coexistence and cohabitation, where each person is entitled to practice individual faith, religion and lifestyle as they desire. Yet time and again, I see secular freedom of minorities being harmed. Staple food for one community being banned, because another considers in poison. Making religious practices of one community, a forced practice for an entire region. And unfortunately, more often than not, the drivers of such occurrences aren’t exactly benevolent intentions, but rather fulfillment of personal agenda. Practicing freedom is synonymous tp practicing tolerance. And when you’re not tolerant, you’re not free.

I’m not exactly a fan of any kind of moral policing – bondage, or dictatorship, or censorship.  So I’m not making the argument that the solution to end misuse of freedom is to revoke it. Rather, on the contrary, it is to reinforce it. In an educated, responsible manner. Individually and collectively. Checks and measures are what need to be practiced internally, not through some external force. Through self-censure, and mutual respect. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will be our very own India. But appropriate use of freedom, is most certainly a step forward in the long journey in building a nation that I’d like to someday describe as truly ‘free’.

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