15/08/2020 7:39 AM IST | Updated 15/08/2020 7:39 AM IST

How To Think About Freedom This Independence Day

One way is to start imagining the kinds of local, direct democracy that will also challenge class, caste and gender hierarchies and structures of power.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
A boy wearing a Guy Fawkes mask bicycles near barbed wire laid out during curfew at the Sarie Bala area on August 4, 2020 in Srinagar, India. 

This August 15th is about freedom from Hindu supremacism and predatory capitalism. India has been effectively under an RSS coup d’etat since May 2019, after the ostensibly “sweeping victory” of the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections. Since then, there has been a relentless onslaught on institutions and democracy from these twin forces, accelerated under cover of the pandemic-related lockdown.

The lockdown should have been a breathing space (a tragic, unintended pun) to prepare for contact-tracing and infrastructure for the spike in infections that was bound to result upon the lifting of restrictions. It was instead used by the current regime as a political emergency. Civil liberties are suspended and large-scale arrests of anti-CAA protesters have been carried out. A deranged script about an “Urban Naxal-Jihadi network” blends the enemies of the twin projects of Hindu supremacism and predatory capital (labelled “jihadi” and “urban Maoist” respectively) to legitimize arrests of students, academics, journalists and activists – largely Muslim.

But at the same time, millions of us globally are connecting to ideas that dare to imagine other worlds. How will we find and inhabit those fissures in which green things can grow, and solidarities, and compassion and hope?

Across the globe, this pandemic has sparked some extraordinary reflections. For one moment let us consider radically different modes of thought and activism, which refuse to recognize “common sense”, “practicality” and other sage notions that restrict our imagination.

Rewilding is a specific ecological strategy, but also a metaphor for a conscious, political retreat from “civilization”, which is usually counter-posed to “wildness”.

At the heart of rewilding is the idea that all life is simply, life – whether human, plant, animal or virus, all integrated within local ecosystems. There are rewilding initiatives in different parts of India, by middle-class people with an ecological vision, the cultural capital to embody it, and the capacity to attract funding. This does not necessarily delegitimize them, because they do involve local communities, who do not otherwise find a voice or the space to act.

Alongside, we must learn from living adivasi practices that preserve biodiversity, rapidly destroyed by predatory capital and the Indian state. This 18-part series on Adivasis and the Indian State discusses multiple aspects of the crisis for adivasi lives, reiterating their norms of collective living, and their passion to protect jal, jangal, jameen. The pathalgadi movement that invokes the Constitution is but one example of Adivasi militancy to protect their common lands and collective life.

There is an immediate conflict between Dalit politics and ecological concerns, which tend to valorize pre-industrialization social organization, which is essentially the violence of the brutal caste system that confined Dalits to the filthiest work. Proponents of Dalit capitalism, in opposition to ecologism, like Chandrabhan Prasad, are the contemporary heirs of an earlier moment of BR Ambedkar’s thought on machinery and technology. 

However, according to VM Ravi Kumar, there was a radical shift in Ambedkar’s thought after his conversion to Buddhism.  His last text Buddha and his Dhamma, demonstrates an “egalitarian environmentalism”, shaped by a Buddhist perception of the interrelatedness of all things in the universe. We see this reflected in the kind of Dalit environmentalism that is alive to caste oppressio


What the Covid pandemic has taught us is that we can no longer continue to think of life as “human” life alone, counter-posing it hierarchically to all other forms of life as (mere) “nature.”

What the Covid pandemic has taught us is that we can no longer continue to think of life as “human” life alone, counter-posing it hierarchically to all other forms of life as (mere) “nature.”

Consider now, the idea of Green Energy, in which nature must be protected because it is the environment of the capitalist system. The Green Deal, espoused by left-of-centre forces in the global North, calls for reduction of dependence of their economies on fossil fuels, curbing of greenhouse gas emissions, and guaranteeing new high-paying jobs in clean energy industries.

But is this simply a way of keeping capitalist production alive and well? Degrowth philosophy argues it is. Green Energy without a rejection of the capitalist imperative of perpetual economic growth, is meaningless.

Degrowth rejects GDP as an indicator of economic well-being and proposes a framework for transformation to a lower and sustainable level of production and consumption – a future where societies live within their ecological means, with

“open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions…(leaving) more space for human cooperation and ecosystems.

Any attempt to deal with the ecological crisis in centralized ways at the level of states is bound to fail. There must be also secession into decentralized, local ways of life, replenishing of the commons, and rejecting the idea of growth altogether. Such a retreat is a deeply political blow to the continuing violence of corporate capital and the state systems that sustain it.

The ideas of food sovereignty and commoning connect with rewilding and degrowth to create a tapestry of linked practices that could escape, even triumph over capitalism’s dreary concrete, like the pipal that finds roots in high-rise building walls, threatening to split them open as it pushes its roots deep inside.

Food sovereignty is a radical alternative to “food security,” which refers only to the availability of food. Food sovereignty as defined by the Declaration of Nyeleni (2007) is the right of peoples to food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods,  and puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems rather than markets and corporations. Food sovereignty is not only subsistence farming but includes organizing to sell food collectively for fair prices, and educating governments to put smallholder farmers’ interests before those of multinational corporations.

In Latin America La Via Campesina is a food sovereignty network. South Africa too, has a strong food sovereignty campaign. In University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, a fledgling food sovereignty initiative by faculty and students has started planting vegetables and fruit trees on campus, so that gradually the campus could become self-sufficient in food, and nobody on campus would go hungry. India too has a growing food sovereignty movement and J Devika has made some concrete suggestions for food sovereignty in the context of Kerala,

A related idea is commoning, not a utopian fantasy, for as Bollier and Helfrich put it, “Commoning is everywhere but widely misunderstood.” In Free, fair and alive: The insurgent power of the commons, they point to examples of self-organization independent of the state or market - community forests, cooperatively run farms and fisheries, open source design and manufacturing communities with global reach.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
A slogan by Bhagat Singh on a placard at Shaheen Bagh, on February 9, 2020 in New Delhi, India. 

 The “impulse to common” arises in various contexts. We saw across India, in the face of the state-created tragedy of millions of migrant workers stranded far from their homes, how non-state, non-market networks of commons spontaneously emerged, of resources, food and solidarity. But the commons is about more than just sharing, say Bollier and Helfrich: “It is about sharing and bringing into being durable social systems for producing shareable things and activities.”

This inspires me to wonder how those networks that emerged can be built upon. And as the public university system is dismantled in India, especially with the accelerated thrust towards online education post-Covid, how durable systems can be built for a knowledge commons, free of both state and market. 

One recognition from the Covid-19 lockdown globally, is the value of care work and the enormous burden it places on women. Degrowth feminists have therefore urged that we use this moment to “democratically rebuild social organization of care work,” including reconstructing publicly funded welfare. 

A subversive take on care is Pirate Care. This is a conceptual intervention that tries to map activism in a world in which:

“captains get arrested for saving people’s lives on the sea; where a person downloading scientific articles faces 35 years in jail; where people risk charges for bringing contraceptives to those who otherwise couldn’t get them…”

We saw this in India during the lockdown -  government officials were suspended, activists arrested, for providing transport for migrant labour.

These practices are experimenting with self-organisation, alternative approaches to social reproduction and the commoning of tools, technologies and knowledges. Care work in civil disobedience of oppressive laws is Pirate Care, which along with rewildingor withdrawing from a civilization built by and for capitalism, can be slogans for our times.

Representative government has revealed its inability to “represent the people” all over the globe since the late 20th century. Hundreds of thousands of Americans marched against war post 9/11, but even under President Barack Obama, the wars conducted by the US did not end. This is because governments are controlled by military industrial complexes and by capital, both global and local. Even when there is no sabotage, election victories are skewed by the system. Consider the indirect system of election in the USA or the first-past-the-post system in India. Add sabotage and we find US 2000, when Bush was awarded a controversial election; and Bolivia 2019, when the US-backed coup unseated Evo Morales.

But what can replace representative government at national level? One answer is local governments, as close to direct democracy as possible. This could mean greater control by local elites, but the current system also does not protect the powerless from local elites. Nor does the state any longer play the role that was envisaged for it at the time of independence, of preventing the local from remaining, in Ambedkar’s words, dens of narrow-mindedness. It is not only the village that maintains caste, gender and community based discrimination, but Indian cities do so too. And currently under Hindu Rashtra, the state and its institutions directly promote casteism and communalism.

So we need at least to start imagining the kinds of local, direct democracy that will also challenge class, caste and gender hierarchies and structures of power; while pushing existing states where democratic institutions have survived, in non-capitalist directions. We need to both challenge existing states as well as work in interstices where the state does not reach.